Dear American Consumers: Please don’t start eating healthfully. Sincerely, the Food Industry
By Patrick Mustain | May 19, 2013 | 17
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Dear Consumers: A disturbing trend has come to our attention. You, the people, are thinking more about health, and you’re starting to do something about it. This cannot continue.
Sure, there’s always been talk of health in America. We often encourage it. The thing is, we only want you to think about and talk about health in a certain way—equating health with how you look, instead of outcomes like quality of life and reduced disease risk. Your superficial understanding of health has a great influence over your purchasing decisions, and we’re ready for it, whether you choose to go low-calorie, low-fat, gluten-free or inevitably give up and accept the fact that you can’t resist our Little Debbie snacks, potato chips and ice cream novelties.
Whatever the current health trend, we respond by developing and marketing new products. We can also show you how great some of our current products are and always have been. For example, when things were not looking so good for fat, our friends at Welch’s were able to point out that their chewy fruit snacks were a fat free option. Low fat! Healthy! Then the tide turned against carbohydrates. Our friends in meat and dairy were happy to show that their steaks, meats and cheeses were low-carb choices. Low carbs! Healthy!
But we’re getting uneasy.
In 2009, Congress commissioned the Inter-agency Working Group (IWG) to develop standards for advertising foods to children. The IWG included the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Congress identified these organizations as having “expertise and experience in child nutrition, child health, psychology, education, marketing and other fields relevant to food and beverage marketing and child nutrition standards.”
We were dismayed when the IWG released its report in 2011. The guidelines said that foods advertised to children must provide “a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet.” For example, any food marketed to children must “contain at least 50% by weight one or more of the following: fruit; vegetable; whole grain; fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt; fish; extra lean meat or poultry; eggs; nuts and seeds; or beans.”
This report was potentially devastating. These organizations, experts in nutrition, were officially outlining what constituted “a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet.” Thankfully, we have a ton of money and were able to use it to get the IWG to withdraw the guidelines.
In a public comment posted on the FTC website, our friends at General Mills pointed out that under the IWG guidelines, the most commonly consumed foods in the US would be considered unhealthy. Specifically, according to General Mills, “of the 100 most commonly consumed foods and beverages in America, 88 would fail the IWG’s proposed standards.” So you see? If you people start eating the way the nutrition experts at the CDC and USDA recommend that you eat, that would delegitimize almost 90 percent of the products we produce! Do you realize how much money that would cost us?
According to the General Mills letter, if everyone in the US started eating healthfully, it would cost us $503 billion per year! That might affect our ability to pay CEOs like General Mills’ Ken Powell annual compensations of more than $12 million.
But revamping the food environment will also cost you money. The General Mills letter stated “a shift by the average American to the IWG diet would conservatively increase the individual’s annual food spending by $1,632.” Sure, we’ve heard talk about costs to the individual that arise from being obese. One 2010 paper from the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services estimated that the annual costs to an individual for being obese can be upwards of $8,000. We like to think of this as a small price to pay for consumer freedom.
Of course, we don’t necessarily want you to be unhealthy. It’s just that it’s so much more profitable to provide foods that happen to be unhealthy. We’ve been able to industrialize the food system so that we can produce massive amounts of the cheapest ingredients available, in the cheapest, most efficient way possible.
On top of that, we understand human biology. Humans evolved in situations in which food was scarce. This led to an evolutionary adaptation that causes you to crave salty, sugary and fatty foods. Consuming foods with these characteristics actually lights up the same pleasure centers in the brain as cocaine. Who wouldn’t play upon that biological craving to increase profits? If one company didn’t, their competitors would, so we all kind of have to do it.
We are also able to provide you with perceived value. Because it doesn’t cost us that much more to make a soda, say, 42 ounces instead of 22, we can almost double the size of a beverage and only charge you 20 percent more. How could you resist a deal like that? You can’t. Trust us, we know.
So you see, dear consumer, everything is fine. We’ve got a good thing going here. There’s no need for you to start worrying about the industrial food system. If you do start thinking about your weight, check out our line of Healthy Choice frozen meals. If that doesn’t work, our friends over in the pharmaceutical industry, the health and fitness industry and the healthcare industry will be happy to help you to continue to fulfill your role as an American Consumer.
Images: by the author